Research & Teaching
Using Arts-Integrated Professional Development to Enhance Environmental Education
By Lauren Madden, Carolina Blatt, Louise Ammentorp, Eileen Heddy, Dana Kneis, and Nicole Stanton
Looking at the history of art, one could argue that nature has long been a universal inspiration to artists. From the earliest prehistoric depictions of bison to the lush floral and vegetal arabesques of Islamic art to the poetic Asian sumi-e landscapes to American transcendentalism, modern Earth artists, and—most recently—postmodern ecologically minded artists, examples of art inspired by the natural world are too numerous to list. Some of the most recognizable pieces of art are creative reflections and expressions of living systems. But what is the academic value of scientific content visible through artwork? Scientific concepts are most often represented in traditional, discipline-specific forms such as numeric formulas and reports. Works of art can communicate problems and issues of a scientific nature in ways that words, numbers, and mathematical symbols cannot (Eisner, 2002). Eisner (2002) notes that communicating through limited forms of representation, as we commonly do in K–12 education, limits the concepts and content we can communicate. Communicating through these forms also limits students’ capacity to understand such concepts. In contrast, the exhibition of artwork that explores scientific content can offer viewers opportunities to see those alternate, sensory-driven forms of communication and the expanse of ideas that follow. By extension, art galleries exhibiting works that grapple with scientific content can serve as ideal outside-of-school learning contexts for students to explore scientific questions.
To create a scientifically literate populace well equipped to support children and safeguard ecosystems, students need access to high-quality science education that addresses environmental issues within and across disciplinary content areas. To provide this access, teachers must be prepared to address these issues using an interdisciplinary approach. The present study takes place within the context of a comprehensive professional development (PD) initiative for preK–8 teachers, which focused on integrating environmental education across disciplines and included multifaceted arts-integrated learning experiences. The arts-based experiences ranged from holding mini-lectures on music and environmental education to visiting a gallery exhibit and creating screen prints using a mobile printmaking station.
In recent years, integrating arts into science or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instruction has received much attention, resulting in a new buzzword: STEAM, in which the “a” stands for “arts.” Many researchers and professional groups report on the benefits of STEAM, including the National Art Education Association, whose position statement (2017) notes, “NAEA believes that to be successful in STEM related career fields, students must be proficient in visual thinking and creative problem-solving facilitated by a strong visual art education.” In a similar light, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) emphasize the importance of the use of design in engineering instruction (Appendix J, NGSS Lead States, 2013). Some initial studies suggest that there are many benefits for students experiencing integrated art and science instruction. For example, Hardiman et al. (2019) report that integrating art into science instruction can result in increased retention of science content among struggling readers, as found through the use of a randomized control trial measuring science content with fifth graders across two science units. Research on STEAM’s capacity to dissolve disciplinary boundaries (Holley, 2009) has led to studies that show increases in creativity that result from transdisciplinary approaches to engineering and art education (Costantino et al., 2010) and further distinguish STEAM as social practice (Guyotte et al., 2014). According to Guyotte et al. (2014, p. 12), “in an educational setting, this means taking subjects that have previously been taught in isolation and weaving them into an integrated curriculum—a transdisciplinary endeavor that has the potential to lead to exciting and unexpected outcomes that can transcend the traditional goals of disciplinary education to address questions of social practice.” Flowers et al. (2014) echo these sentiments about transcendence and suggest that integrating nature-based art-making into environmental education can result in multiple ways for students to understand a phenomenon. Similarly, in a study examining aesthetic experiences in Brazilian Savanna, Iared et al. (2017) found that individuals can make more extensive connections to prior scientific knowledge and observe their environments more carefully when tuned in to the aesthetic elements of their experience. In their words: “When we go through an aesthetic experience ... we may have an intersensorial experience whereby everything we have learnt can be drawn upon, combined, and interchanged” (p. 1281).
It should be stated that as the emerging field of STEAM grows, there are no clear definitions for what STEAM is. As Quigley et al. (2017, p. 3) note, “The existing literature lacks specificity beyond STEM with the arts; however, approaches to teach STEAM include certain skills that could be fostered, such as problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and real-world application.”
Despite the variety of differences in the way STEAM is conceptualized, it is generally accepted that the integration of art into STEM content instruction adds value and meaning. For authentic STEAM instruction, art is not simply an “add-on” activity such as drawing a picture or writing a rap at the conclusion of a lesson. Tacking on an art activity might be considered a subservient application of arts integration in which the arts prop up other subjects and there is little, if any, meaningful learning taking place in the arts (Bresler, 1995). For more effective arts integration, STEAM teachers might apply a co-equal or cognitive integration model, in which teachers “encourage active perception and critical reflection on the technical and formal qualities of a project” (Bresler, 1995, p. 33). Unlike the more common subservient approach, the cognitive integration approach embeds not only aesthetic qualities but also higher-order thinking skills in which students take a critical lens to their work to arrive at more advanced aesthetic outcomes. In such a model, “the teacher [draws] on art-specific skills and sensitivities; provide[s] guidance that require[s] students to observe, perceive, and come up with their own interpretations; and pose[s] higher-order questions of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation” (Bresler, 1995, p. 33). Such strategies typically require teachers to have extensive training in the arts or cultivate a partnership with an arts specialist and teach using a collaborative approach. Santos et al. (2018), for example, described a collaborative professional development model in which teams of teachers and researchers worked together to create environmental education activities for future use in their classrooms across multiple content areas. This study used the arts as a foundational activity for a stronger understanding of science. Students created sculptures of ecosystem features as an artistic endeavor and used those sculptures as physical models to better understand relationships between the natural and designed features of the ecosystems in science and geography. This work suggests that through purposeful collaboration, arts-integrated instruction can be an effective tool for developing engaging, multidisciplinary environmental education activities.
As the studies described suggest, models for STEAM abound and vary in the ways they describe, structure, and analyze the integration of art into STEM education. Several other studies have attempted to conceptualize STEAM as a model for instruction. For example, Berk (2016) emphasizes the design elements of STEAM, both aesthetic (arts) and functional (STEM), while Liao (2016) offers a model that takes a transdisciplinary approach that identifies connections between, across, and beyond disciplines. Turkka et al. (2017) created a model for arts integration into science instruction based on an exploratory survey of teachers’ practical examples to describe a wide breadth of types of STEAM instruction across many classrooms.
Quigley and colleagues (2017) provide an in-depth analysis and review of the current state of STEAM education and offer a conceptual model based on the existing literature and their research. This conceptual model focuses on both the instructional content and learning context for STEAM. The instructional content is made up of three components: problem-based delivery, disciplinary integration, and problem-solving skills. The learning context includes instructional approaches, assessment practices, and equitable participation. Although enactment of STEAM in a classroom could take many formats, we are using this model to clarify the key elements of STEAM instruction. Figure 1 depicts the components of each part of this model.
Quigley et al.’s (2017) model provides a framework for considering how STEAM teaching and learning take place; we use this framework when considering our own work, specifically in an environmental education PD context. This STEAM conceptual model provides criteria and examples for how each facet of the model is addressed.
The study took place within the context of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency–funded PD initiative held in the school of education at a small, selective, primarily undergraduate institution in the northeastern United States. Six schools sent teams of between three and six teachers to attend a series of five 4-hour workshops. The overall theme was “Protecting Waters, Connecting Minds.” In the workshops, participants learned about strategies for incorporating environmental education related to this theme across the curriculum. Each team also designed a school-based project informed by the workshops. At the conclusion of the workshops, schools received awards to implement their project.
Arts integration and connecting classroom practice to informal learning environments (such as art galleries) were key foci of the PD experience. During one PD session, strategies for integrating music and environmental education were presented through a guest lecture by a music educator. This presentation included examples of music made with natural objects, music with lyrics expressing concern about environmental issues, and examples of how to represent data musically. At the final PD session, the participants visited Springs Eternal, a water-themed exhibit held at the institution’s art gallery. The exhibition featured a range of media, including ceramic sculpture, screen prints, video installations, and an interactive experience called the Water Bar in which visitors tasted tap water from a variety of locations. Each artist’s work at the exhibit focused on some aspect of water and the environment, and the participants also interacted with a mobile printmaking station to create a poster commemorating their experience.
The visit to the gallery was self-guided, and participants were invited to observe and interact with the various artists’ works at their own discretion. In two cases, the Water Bar and the mobile printmaking station, the teachers interacted directly with the art by tasting samples of water and creating prints. In other works, the degree of interaction depended on the participant—for example, some participants read artists’ statements, asked questions of gallery staff, and discussed how the works could be incorporated into their own classrooms. Others simply observed.
After collecting data in a variety of ways (e.g., surveys, school visits, and emails directly with teachers)—some of which directly asked teachers about their plans to use the arts in their work while others did not—it became clear that the arts-integrated approach introduced in the workshops was salient to the participants. This finding motivated closer analysis of the data set in an effort to create a model to help us conceptualize arts-integrated environmental education.
In this study, we examined the ways in which teachers participating in our PD ultimately integrated (or planned to integrate) the arts into STEM or environmental education in their own unique contexts with their preK–8 students and school communities. We structured our analyses of teachers’ arts integration according to the intended purposes of the arts integration. We used a grounded approach in our analyses (Creswell & Clark, 2017). Data sources included reflective teacher surveys after workshop meetings (17 out of 26 teachers responded, representing a response rate of 65%), field notes from visits to schools (one visit per school), and email communication with participating teachers (a total of six emails).
A total of six school-based teams attended, and each school sent between three and six teacher participants. A total of 26 teachers participated. The participants included a broad representation of types of teachers working in classrooms across the preK–8 spectrum. Among the participants were two STEM specialists, one art teacher, one media specialist, one physical education and wellness teacher, and two special education teachers. The remainder were traditional classroom teachers working in various grades.
At the conclusion of each workshop, participants completed an anonymous online survey identifying that session’s strengths, areas for improvement, and ideas they were likely to apply in their classrooms. The survey that followed the visit to the gallery asked directly about arts integration and was used as a data source for this study (17 out of 26 teachers responded, representing a response rate of 65%). After the workshop series was complete, PD facilitators visited each school (at the school’s invitation) to observe projects, lessons, and school assemblies and celebrations (one visit per school; six visits total). Field notes and photographs were taken by the PD facilitators and sent to the teachers for review. Teachers made suggestions and comments via email and were encouraged to share examples of using informal learning and arts-integrated environmental education in their instruction. These emails were also used as data sources in this study (a total of six emails were received).
After reading through the entire data set individually, the authors discussed themes that emerged from the participating teachers’ comments regarding arts-integrated environmental education. The authors identified four categories among these themes: (a) communication, or using the arts to communicate environmental issues or messages (e.g., creating a mural with a message about water conservation); (b) creative expression, or displaying scientific information in novel or unique ways (e.g., creating a musical composition depicting scarcity of fresh water); (c) content explanation, or using the arts to explain scientific or environmental phenomena (e.g., using dance to model movement of water throughout reservoirs); and (d) community building, or using the arts to build relationships within a classroom or school setting (e.g., participating in art-making to create signage about an issue of interest to the group). We coined the term Four C model of arts-integrated environmental education to describe this framework. The data set was then coded using these categories. All data were uploaded to NVivo12 and coded using an a priori approach with the Four C model (Saldaña, 2015). Two coders coded 10% of the data set together to establish interrater reliability, and occasional spot checking was employed to determine coder drift. Interrater reliability was determined to be 92%, and no noticeable drift was found. Each time a category emerged, it was coded. There were many cases in which multiple codes were used to describe a teacher’s example.
Across the board, teachers who engaged in our PD efforts found productive ways to integrate the arts into environmental education for each of the purposes described in the Four C model. Table 1 shows the incidence of each of the four categories of arts integration. It should be noted that given the qualitative nature of this work, these numbers are not intended to be comparative; instead, they provide an overall sense of how the arts were integrated into day-to-day classroom work by teachers after they participated in this arts-integrated PD. Each incidence coded represents an example of one purpose of arts integration that serves as part of a complete learning experience. The examples provided later in this article describe the specific ways in which teachers described arts integration, not comprehensive learning experiences.
The most frequent purpose of arts-integrated environmental education was content explanation (11 incidences), followed by creative expression (8 incidences). Communication and community building were both mentioned as well, though at a slightly lower rate (5 incidences each). Next, we unpack some specific examples for each category.
Across the data set, the arts were used to communicate about environmental issues and STEM content, along with messages about environmentalism, and these were mentioned five times in the data set. For example, the photo in Figure 2 (taken at a school observation) shows artwork with a conservation message.
|Table 1. Incidence of each category within the Four C model.|
Similar messages were found in artwork and posters at other schools as well. In an email, one teacher suggested that the performing arts could also be used to communicate environmental messages, describing her plan to integrate “student-led awareness campaigns through performing arts: dramatic representation of single-use plastic ocean destruction,” which could be used in a school assembly, suggesting that arts-integrated communication was not seen by teachers as only visual.
Arts-integrated environmental education for the purpose of community building emerged five times across the data set. At a few of the schools, the arts were used to help build communities around environmental sustainability. For example, one school decided to re-create a Water Bar–type experience for a school Earth Day celebration during which visitors discussed their experiences with various types of tap water. Figure 3 depicts the children’s Water Bar tasting session setup.
In a survey response, one participant suggested a plan for “graduating 5th graders [to] each paint a personal rock to leave in the garden,” demonstrating students’ connection and contribution to the garden throughout their elementary experiences. Although the act of painting the rock itself is not directly aligned with STEM, leaving the rock in the garden serves as a reminder of the students’ participation in garden-based learning. In another survey response, a teacher indicated that the school would use a black-line master of the print created at the mobile printmaking station at their school’s literary festival for attendees to create a community art project. Finally, one teacher expressed in a survey a hope to connect with other teachers involved with this project to build and grow a community of arts-integrated environmental educators to collaborate with in future work.
Across the board, teachers most often cited examples of arts-integrated environmental education for the purpose of content explanation, mentioning it 11 times. At one school, the teachers created a musical composition (https://vimeo.com/122603843) with accompanying charts and visual representations, using air quality data from Beijing to introduce the idea of smog before beginning a unit of study on weather systems. This teacher noted that the project was inspired by the musical representation of climate data presented during the guest lecture at Workshop 4 in our PD series. At another school, a second-grade teacher led a model pollination activity and discussed the way color could help students better understand the way in which pollen moves from flower to flower in real-life systems, as depicted in Figure 4. Students used wet cotton swabs to move powdered drink mix from one model flower to another at their tables. At the close of the activity, students participated in a silent gallery walk to observe each table’s models. The teacher then led a discussion, which started with students sharing about aesthetic elements they observed, such as the beauty in differences among the groups’ models. The teacher transitioned to address the difference in colors and patterns, which represented differences in the way pollination takes place in different plants. One student made a connection to allergies and noted that he sneezed more around certain plants than others, and the teacher connected this difference to the color differences in the models. Although this was not the most comprehensive example of integrating art and science, the activity allowed students to consider the aesthetic elements of color distribution alongside the science content.
Pollination came up several times across the data set as a topic that offered an opportunity to explain science content through the arts. For example, another teacher planned to use data about the decline in pollinator populations in poetry. Still another suggested using the design process to create “hand pollinators” to allow students to think about the physical elements of how pollination works in nature, engaging in more of the design-centric elements of STEAM. Finally, one teacher mentioned that after the workshops, she planned to integrate the arts into another STEM and social studies unit for Women’s History Month, creating posters of women in STEM to display alongside biographies.
Eight times across the data set, teachers suggested opportunities for creative expression through arts-integrated environmental education. One teacher commented in a survey that her school would use the image from our mobile printmaking demonstration at her school’s water festival to allow students to use their creativity and contribute to a school mural for International Water Day, building off her experiences with the mobile printmaking station at the exhibit (see Figure 5). Another offered that environmental issues were good starting points for student-led inquiry in STEAM: “I think one of the opportunities for STEAM would be to pose some of our water concerns/problems to students in a developmentally appropriate way and see what innovative ideas they might have to conserve/help our water supply.” Another offered that the school’s water garden would be an inspiring place for students to draw or write poetry.
Several times, teachers offered ideas for upcycling, or repurposing trash into art, a process that requires students to assess the structure and function of various materials and design new objects from old through engineering design. One teacher mentioned planning to use plastic bottles to create flowers, while another shared a plan to use aluminum cans and bottle caps to create murals; a third used discarded tires as flower planters in a school garden. That school’s garden teacher plans to ask students to paint the tires during garden lessons in the winter months when the children are otherwise not able to work in the garden. The teachers at the middle-school level took this idea a step further and challenged students to participate in a “trashion” show, creating clothing out of discarded objects and modeling those clothes for the school board.
After analyzing the data on the teachers’ use of STEAM in environmental education, we identified each of the arts-integrated elements of the workshop series and used the Four C model to better understand how these elements manifest in the specific artwork and activities experienced by the participants. This process of identifying how each artist’s work demonstrated the categories in the Four C model took place after the initial data set from participating teachers was coded. Discussion among authors took place until 100% agreement was met. Table 2 displays the alignment between PD activities and the Four C model.
The Four C model for arts-integrated environmental education emerged when we considered the themes teachers shared in their surveys, emails, and classroom observations. When we considered the PD itself in light of the model, it became clear that the arts-integrated experiences also demonstrated alignment to each of the four purposes detailed in the Four C model: communication, community building, content explanation, and creative expression. Participating teachers built on their experiences with the PD to create meaningful learning opportunities for preK–8 students within their own classrooms and schools. This work suggests that Quigley et al.’s (2017) model for STEAM, which pays close attention to both instructional content and learning context, is useful for describing how to integrate the arts effectively into environmental education. Our focus on the Four C model enabled us to clearly articulate the reason and value for purposefully integrating arts into environmental education. Figure 6 illustrates the way in which the Four C model fits within Quigley and colleagues’ (2017) conceptual framework.
Our PD focused broadly on integrating environmental education across content areas, and more specifically around issues related to water. Incorporating informal learning contexts—namely, an art exhibit focused on problems that are scientific in nature—further sharpened the focus of these workshops. Considering that specific works of art related to particular problems and issues provided a clear model that allowed for arts-integrated environmental education that went far beyond simply adding on an arts component. As a result of engaging with these artistic works, teachers were able to create tangible arts-integrated activities for their students that served a larger purpose within their classrooms. In some cases, such as the teacher who was inspired to include an arts-component for her Women in STEM biography project, the skills teachers gained from engaging with one context for arts-integrated instruction were applied to new contexts—in this case, using art to help explain both science and social studies content. It should be clear that the level of integration of arts-based activities varied quite a bit across the teachers’ enactment of arts-integrated PD. Continued close partnerships between classroom teachers, arts teachers, and other school community members can lead to growth in the ways in which teachers engage in STEAM.
In sum, the Four C model that emerged from this project is a useful tool for creating integrated STEAM learning and could be applied to a number of contexts to ensure that arts-integrated activities are meaningful and more than an “add on.” Although we were working with experienced practicing teachers, we believe this model could be useful for preservice teachers and students across the preK–12 spectrum for meaningful STEAM learning. In future work, we intend to share the Four C model with teachers early in PD sessions to allow them to use the model more purposefully to structure future work.
Our relationship with teachers at each of these six schools has continued, now a year after the series of workshops took place, and we have seen continued examples of arts-integrated environmental education. For example, at one school, students created videos to share with their parents and the school board highlighting photographs of their school’s rain garden and using music to celebrate their work and solicit future donations, which addresses communication, content explanation, and community building. At another school, the youngest children use art-making through collages to document what they have learned about types of leaves on a nature walk, showing both content explanation and creative expression. As time goes on, we intend to continue our relationships with each of these schools and to use their work as exemplars when teaching using the Four C model.
Lauren Madden (email@example.com) is a professor of elementary science education, Carolina Blatt is an associate professor of art education, Louise Ammentorp is a professor of elementary and early childhood education, and Eileen Heddy is the director of the Support for Teacher Education Programs, all at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, New Jersey. Dana Kneis is a school counselor at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Nicole Stanton is a special education teacher at Mount Olive Middle School in Mount Olive, New Jersey.
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